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St. Petersburg surveillance camera reality check: Now that they're here, what next?

ST. PETERSBURG — Video surveillance cameras are the municipal equivalent to the latest Apple product: Everyone wants them and there's a mad rush to get them.

Chicago, Colorado Springs and Portland, Ore., have all moved ahead with them since March. Tampa is spending $2 million on a network of surveillance cameras in time for the Republican National Convention in August.

But while buying the cameras is all the rage, cities that have them are struggling with how to use them.

The Los Angeles Times reported in December that most of the Los Angeles Police Department's downtown cameras hadn't worked for years. In Philadelphia, 40 percent of the cameras have mechanical problems or aren't working.

Earlier this year, St. Petersburg got a reality check when Gene Webb, the police department's former information technology manager, revealed that cameras he helped install in Williams, Lake Vista and Fossil parks were left unattended because the city doesn't have the employees to review them. The program to watch drug-dealing spots was scrapped because of a lack of interest, he said.

Webb's revelation was a blow to Mayor Bill Foster, who pledged to put up security cameras in neighborhood "hot spots" during his 2009 campaign. In February, Foster told council members that he had bigger budget issues and that if they wanted the cameras, it was up to them to figure out a way the city could afford them.

On Thursday, council member Karl Nurse wanted to resurrect the idea of fighting crime with video cameras. The way he sees it, they can be installed in neighborhoods where open-air drug dealing is rampant. Once dealers and customers see the cameras, he said, they'll go elsewhere, giving neighborhoods a chance to rebound.

"That's step one to taking the neighborhoods back," he said.

The money to pay for the cameras, Nurse said, can be found in the police department's $1.3 million forfeiture fund.

Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran and council members Bill Dudley, Jeff Danner and Charlie Gerdes approved Nurse's request to explore using cameras in high crime corridors like 34th Street and at high-crime spots in neighborhoods.

Nurse even found support from a colleague who often disagrees with him: Wengay Newton.

"I have more crack houses in my district," Newton said. "If you put cameras in there, they will go."

But council members are divided on what type of video camera system should be in place.

Steve Kornell, Jim Kennedy and Curran said they had concerns that cameras installed in neighborhoods could shift the drug trade to adjacent blocks without cameras.

"The idea of relocating something is not okay with me," Kornell said. "Those who get that relocation tend to be the ones who don't have a political voice, and that's not how the city should operate."

Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn cautioned council members that the cameras could expose taxpayers to lawsuits.

If certain areas are monitored by security cameras, then a presumption could be made that those areas are safe, he said. If those cameras aren't being watched when something goes wrong, the city could be held liable.

"I'd suggest we be very careful," Winn told council members.

Cameras do help deter some crime, said Michael McDonald, assistant director of the police department's administrative services bureau.

"But is it enough of a deterrent?" he said. "The data is inconclusive. In effect, what you end up doing is moving the illegal activity a few blocks away."

Of the city's 181 cameras that have been installed, 169 of them keep an eye on city facilities, such as the port, marina and buildings like the police station. The other 12 cameras are set up at four public gathering spots: Childs Park, Williams Park, Willis Johns Recreation Center and Lake Vista Recreation Center.

The city also has 22 cameras perched at intersections to record motorists who don't stop at red lights. And recently, the Florida Department of Transportation has allowed the city to tap into cameras that record traffic along Interstate 275.

But these systems aren't integrated. If the council wants to weave them in a master system, it will take extra money, said city chief information officer Muslim Gadiwalla.

As for Foster, he said Thursday his vision has never changed on cameras.

He said new security cameras will be installed throughout downtown and "high-traffic tourist areas" by the end of the year. He said he is still undecided on using cameras in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

He declined giving further details about his plans.

St. Petersburg surveillance camera reality check: Now that they're here, what next? 04/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 27, 2012 3:52pm]
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